A Major Talent [on SWEETIE]

Top-of-the-Lake-011

From the Chicago Reader (March 30, 1990). I must confess that  I was disappointed for a long time that none of Campion’s subsequent films lived up to the promise of Sweetie, in spite of the virtues of some of them, at least until her wonderful 2014 miniseries Top of the Lake, which I’ve just belatedly caught up with. (I’ll never forget a bitter comment Jean-Luc Godard made to me in Toronto in 1996, citing Campion as a perfect example of a talented filmmaker “completely destroyed by money”.) But then again, to cite someone cross-referenced in this review (and also significantly cross-referenced in Top of the Lake, a kind of feminist response to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), it’s also hard to think of many David Lynch films that have lived up to the promise of Eraserhead, at least prior to Inland Empire….I suspect that the collaboration of writer Gerard Lee on Passionless Moments, Sweetie, and Top of the Lake has something to do with what makes all three of them stand out so vividly in Campion’s oeuvre.– J.R.

SWEETIE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jane Campion

Written by Gerard Lee and Campion

With Genevieve Lemon, Karen Colston, Tom Lycos, Dorothy Barry, Jon Darling, Michael Lake, and Andre Pataczek.… Read more »

A Stylist Hits His Stride (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND)

From the March 19, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Michel Gondry

Written by Charlie Kaufman, Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth

With Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Tom Wilkinson.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;

“Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;”

Desires compos’d, affections ever ev’n,

Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav’n.


–Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717)

Only once in a blue moon does a screenwriter who isn’t a director become known as an auteur. Plenty of distinctive movie writers have reputations as actors or as actor-directors, starting with such giants as D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Erich von Stroheim, but they’re rarely celebrated for their writing. You have to go back to Robert Towne, who’s done only a little directing, and Paddy Chayefsky, who never did anything but write and produce, to find auteurs known mainly as writers.

A Chayefsky movie isn’t hard to identify, but I think it’s safe to say that these days a Charlie Kaufman movie is even more recognizable.… Read more »

Sexual Discourse [THE PIANO]

From the Chicago Reader (December 10, 1993). — J.R.

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THE PIANO

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Jane Campion

With Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, Genevieve Lemon, Tungia Baker, and Ian Mune.

The Piano-HH

Given how sexy and volatile it is, it’s no surprise that The Piano is a hit. It’s also no surprise, given the strong-arm tactics of the distributor and the hype of some reviewers, that a certain critical backlash is already setting in, as evidenced by a lucid and considered dissent by Stuart Klawans in the Nation and a rather lazy dismissal by Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic. People like myself who are passionate fans of Jane Campion’s previous work may be somewhat churlish that many other people are finding their way to her work only after it has become juiced up, simplified, and mainstreamed — like the people who bypassed the dreamy finesse of Eraserhead on their way to the relative crudeness of Blue Velvet. It’s certainly regrettable that viewers who weren’t interested in seeing Campion’s 1989 film Sweetie until after they saw The Piano now have to contend with a lousy video transfer that doesn’t begin to do justice to Campion’s colors and compositions.… Read more »

Philosophical Treatises of Master Illusionist: A Conversation about Abbas Kiarostami

This is a slightly different edit of a dialogue proposed and inaugurated by Ehsan Khoshbakht on July 5, 2016, edited by him, and published in the British Council’s online Underline magazine on July 8. — J.R.

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Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016), arguably the greatest of Iranian filmmakers, was a master of interruption and reduction in cinema. He, who passed away on Monday in a Paris hospital, diverted cinema from its course more than once. From his experimental children’s films to deconstructing the meaning of documentary and fiction, to digital experimentation, every move brought him new admirers and cost him some of his old ones. Kiarostami provided a style, a film language, with a valid grammar of its own. On the occasion of this great loss, Jonathan Rosenbaum and I discussed some aspects of Kiarostami’s world. Jonathan, the former chief film critic at Chicago Reader, is the co-author (with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa) of a book on Kiarostami, available from the University of Illinois Press. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

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Ehsan Khoshbakht: Abbas Kiarostami’s impact on Iranian cinema was so colossal that it almost swallowed up everything before it, and to a certain extent after it. For better or worse, Iranian cinema was equated with Abbas Kiarostami.… Read more »

Place and Displacement: Akerman and Documentary

Written for Chantal Akerman: Four Films, a DVD box set released by Icarus Films on March 29, 2016. — J.R.

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Sud-church front

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“When you try to show reality in cinema, most of the time it’s totally false. But when you show what’s going on in people’s minds that’s very cinematic.”

Chantal Akerman

 

If I had to describe the art of Chantal Akerman (1950-2015) in a single word, I think I’d opt for “composition”. This is a term that needs to be understood in its plastic as well as its musical meanings: a visual object that has to be framed in space, a musical object that has to be composed in time. And if we factor in the implied definitions offered above by Akerman regarding what’s reality and what’s cinematic, what’s going on in people’s minds and what’s going on in front of a camera and microphone, then we have to acknowledge that what she chooses to compose represents a kind of uneasy truce between all four elements (or five elements, if we regard sound and image as separate). How much she and we privilege mind over matter and cinema over reality — or vice versa — has a lot of bearing on what’s derived from the encounter.… Read more »

Flirting With Disaster [MARS ATTACKS!]

From the Chicago Reader (December 13, 1996). — J.R.

Mars Attacks! ***

Directed by Tim Burton

Written by Jonathan Gems

With Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, and Sylvia Sidney.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

As light entertainment, Mars Attacks! gave me more pleasure than most other recent movies I’ve seen, including Daylight, The English Patient, Independence Day, Jingle All the Way, 101 Dalmatians, Space Jam, Trees Lounge, and 2 Days in the Valley. Maybe this is because it achieves the level of nonseriousness so many of its competitors aim for, a level the mass media have been touting as the ideal for big-time movies. If that ideal is to keep you enthralled for a couple of hours and leave a minimum of aftertaste, then Tim Burton’s SF comedy pretty much fills the bill. It also made me laugh.

Part of what kept me so absorbed — apart from the neatly designed effects and a few of the actorly turns, including Jack Nicholson’s — is the sense the film conveys of postmodernist free fall through the iconography of 50s and 60s science fiction in relation to the present: a singular sense of giddy displacement that clearly locates the movie in the 90s, but a 90s largely made up of images and cliches from previous decades that are subtly turned against themselves, made into a form of camp, affectionately mocked, yet still revered as if they had a particular purchase on the truth.… Read more »

Another Day, Another Genre [MATCH POINT]

From the January 13, 2006 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Match Point

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, Brian Cox, and Penelope Wilton

Movie gossip writer Peter Biskind described Woody Allen in the December 2005 Vanity Fair as “an artist without honor in his own country” (apparently Biskind’s ecstatic write-up in Vanity Fair doesn’t count). He went on to compare Allen’s fate to those of some of Allen’s heroes, including Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, and Charlie Chaplin (assuming Chaplin’s “own country” was the U.S.). He added that Allen, who’s released 35 features to date, has made at least ten masterpieces “that can hold their own against” any of the four he credited to Robert Altman or the three he assigned to Francois Truffaut.

Altman, Bergman, Chaplin, Kurosawa, Truffaut, and Welles have changed our view of the world and of movies. Allen, despite his output and great one-liners and excellent taste in cinematographers, hasn’t. “If I was the teacher, I’d give myself a B,” he modestly told Biskind. Given his indebtedness to Bergman and Federico Fellini, that B would have to be for effort and polish, not originality.… Read more »

Odd Couplings [BODY OF EVIDENCE & DAMAGE]

From the Chicago Reader (January 29, 1993). Since writing this, I’ve come to like Basic Instinct much more than I did. — J.R.

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BODY OF EVIDENCE

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Uli Edel

Written by Brad Mirman

With Madonna, Willem Dafoe, Joe Mantegna, Anne Archer, Julianne Moore, Stan Shaw, Charles Hallahan, Lillian Lehman, Mark Rolston, Jeff Perry, and Jurgen Prochnow.

DAMAGE

* (Has redeeming facet

Directed by Louis Malle

Written by David Hare

With Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Graves, Ian Bannen, Leslie Caron, Peter Stormare, Gemma Clark, and Julian Fellowes.


The pointed absence of scenes of sexual intercourse in such recent releases seemingly calling for them as The Crying Game, The Hours and Times, and Scent of a Woman is curious when weighed against a tendency in some other movies, including two that opened recently, to highlight transgressive or dangerous sex. In Body of Evidence it’s not only bondage and sadomasochism but sex leading to the male partner’s cardiac arrest, an effect the female partner may have intended. In Damage it’s not only illicit sex between an older, prominent government official and his son’s fiancee, who has incest in her past, but also the unconventionality of their couplings: they often remain partly clothed, and the positions they assume border on the pretzellike.… Read more »

“New Hollywood” and the 60s Melting Pot

This essay — commissioned originally in the mid-1990s by Alexander Horwath for a collection in German published by the Viennale, and later published in 2004 by the Amsterdam University Press as The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema of the 1970s, coedited by Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath, and Noel King — overlaps with various other pieces of mine, and is obviously out of date in some of its details, but it seems worth reprinting for some of the arguments it draws together. And it’s been fun hunting up illustrations for it on the Internet. — J.R.

“New Hollywood” and the 60s Melting Pot
Jonathan Rosenbaum

Let me begin with a few printed artifacts, all of them from New York in the early 60s: two successive issues of the NY Film Bulletin published in early 1962, special numbers devoted to Last Year at Marienbad and François Truffaut; and three successive issues of Film Culture, dated winter 1962, winter 1962-63, and spring 1963. Cheaply printed but copiously illustrated, the two special numbers of the NY Film Bulletin are the 43rd and 44th issues of a monthly, respectively twenty and twenty-eight pages in length. The Last Year at Marienbad issue consists exclusively of interviews with Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and editor Henri Colpi, all translated from French magazines, and a briefly annotated Resnais filmography.… Read more »

Disjointed [MO' BETTER BLUES]

This review, originally published in August 3, 1990 Chicago Reader, was one of my first sustained efforts to write about the employment of jazz in movies. The movie isn’t as good or as entertaining as Lee’s latest messy Brechtian musical, Chiraq, although the latter film suggests once again that he still doesn’t have a clear sense of how to use music. — J.R.

MoBetterBlues

MO’ BETTER BLUES ** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Spike Lee

With Denzel Washington, Lee, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Joie Lee, Cynda Williams, Bill Nunn, Dick Anthony Williams, and John Turturro.

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

First the good news: strictly as an exercise de style, Spike Lee’s fourth joint is in certain respects the liveliest and jazziest piece of filmmaking he’s turned out yet. From the arty close-ups behind the opening credits of — and liquid pans past, and dissolves between –- trumpet, lips, and lovers’ grasping hands in blue, yellow, amber, and green to the matching semicircular crane shots that frame the story, this is a movie cooking with ideas about filmmaking. Bringing back a good many of the featured players in Do the Right Thing, and introducing to the Spike Lee stable the highly talented Denzel Washington, Cynda Williams, Wesley Snipes, and Dick Anthony Williams (among others), it’s a movie bursting with personality and actorly energy as well.… Read more »

Cult of Personality (LET’S GET LOST)

From the July 21, 1989 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

LET’S GET LOST ** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bruce Weber.

Can you carry a tune? Is your time all right? Sing! If your voice has hardly any range, hardly any volume, shaky pitch, no body or bottom, no matter. If it quavers a bit and if you project a certain tarnished, boyish (not exactly adolescent, almost childish) pleading, you’ll make it. A certain kind of girl with strong maternal instincts but no one to mother will love you. You’ll make it. The way you make it may have little to do with music, but that happens all the time anyway.

This is jazz critic Martin Williams 30 years ago in a Down Beat review of It Could Happen to You: Chet Baker Sings. By this time, the youthful Baker had already established a reputation as a jazz trumpeter of some promise, and later in the same review, Williams concedes that as an improvising musician, he has a “fragile, melodic talent” that is “his own,” even if he “has hardly explored it.” The same strictures might apply to Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s spellbinding (if simpleminded) black-and-white documentary about the life, times, and last days of Chet Baker.… Read more »

Mixed Emotions (BREAKING THE WAVES)

From the Chicago Reader (December 6, 1996). – J.R.

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Breaking the Waves

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by

Lars von Trier

With Emily Watson, Stellan

Skarsgard, Katrin Cartlidge,

Jean-Marc Barr, Adrian Rawlins,

Jonathan Hackett, and Udo Kier.

Ever since I first encountered Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves in Cannes, where it won the grand jury prize, I’ve been debating within myself about it, because I find it simultaneously shameless, boldly original, contrived, highly affecting, transparent, cynical, hopeful, ironic, sincere, ugly, beautiful, and downright baffling. In a way, my debate isn’t so different from that of Bess (Emily Watson) — the innocent and high strung (or unstrung) young heroine who lives on the northwest coast of Scotland in the early 70s and for much of the film carries on a furious internal debate with “God,” speaking her own part in a squeaky high voice and God’s in a patriarchal low one.

Where Bess, a devout believer, has God, I, a nonbeliever, have the late Carl Dreyer, the film artist von Trier and I both revere above all others. And where Bess speaks to herself not as God but as her sense of God (which overlaps on rare occasion with her sense of Jan), I speak to myself not as Dreyer but as my sense of Dreyer’s achievement (which overlaps on rare occasion with my sense of von Trier’s achievement).… Read more »

Doing the Hustle [DANCER IN THE DARK]

From the Chicago Reader (October 27, 2000). — J.R.

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Dancer in the Dark

**

Directed and written by Lars von Trier With Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, and Jean-Marc Barr.

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To put it in the singsongy fashion of its own tacky musical numbers, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark enrages as well as engages, but I must confess that it also fascinates with its capacity to elicit extreme reactions. Ever since this musical about a woman from communist Czechoslovakia working in an American factory won the Palme d’Or and best actress prize (for rock star Bjork) from a Cannes jury headed by Luc Besson — one of the only Europudding directors who’s both crass and clever enough to rival von Trier as the most shameless sensationalist around — it has provoked hysterical reactions, pro as well as con. Viewers are struck by its technology (it was allegedly shot with 100 stationary digital cameras) as well as its aesthetics, its setting and social aspects, and its melodramatic story, not to mention its musical numbers. Though the movie certainly has its American defenders, many of its most vociferous detractors come from this country too. It’s not too surprising considering that this movie offers a horrific view of the American justice system, one you’d expect to find in an east European propaganda film shot 40 or 50 years ago.… Read more »

Sex Games (on Polanski’s BITTER MOON)

From the April 8, 1994 issue of the Chicago Reader. When I reprinted this article in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics, I gave it a different title: “Polanski and the American Experiment”.

For me, The Ghost Writer is easily Polanski’s best film since Bitter Moon. And certainly his most masterful. — J.R.

**** BITTER MOON

Directed by Roman Polanski

Written by Polanski, Gerard Brach, John Brownjohn, and Jeff Gross

With Peter Coyote, Emmanuelle Seigner, Hugh Grant, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Victor Bannerjee, Sophie Patel, and Stockard Channing.

Fairly late in What? (1973), Roman Polanski’s least seen and least critically approved feature — an absurdist, misogynist, yet oddly affectionate ‘Scope comedy filmed in the seaside villa of its producer, Carlo Ponti — the bimbo American heroine (Sydne Rome), an Alice set loose in a decadent wonderland belonging to a dying millionaire named Noblart, wanders for the second time into a living room where she encounters a middle-aged Englishman. Once again this Noblart employee bemoans his arthritis, cracks his knuckles, then sits down at a piano to play the treble part of a Mozart sonata for four hands. Immediately recognizing the piece, she joins him, performing the bass part. After a rose petal drops from a bowl of flowers on the piano onto the keyboard, which also happened before, the wide-eyed heroine has an epiphany:

“It’s so strange — this keeps happening to me more and more often.… Read more »

Film Writing Degree Zero: The Marketplace and the University

From the Autumn 1977 Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Perhaps it is time to study discourse not only according to its expressive values, or in its formal transformations, but also according to its modes of existence: the modes of circulation, attribution and appropriation of discourse vary with each culture. . . . [T]he effect on social relationships can be more directly seen, it seems to me, in the interplay of authorship and its modifications than in the themes or concepts contained in the works.
— Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?”

Movies and Methods

It seems likely that Hollywood Directors 1914–1940 and Movies and Methods[*] are the two most interesting anthologies of writing about film recently published in English. Each marks a substantial foray beyond the standard recycling operations of most anthologies, making available a wealth of helpful material that is otherwise hard to come by. An easy enough assessment, on the face of it, yet one that conceals a nagging question: what do we mean by “interesting” and “helpful”? In what way can both books be considered deserving of the same ambiguous adjectives? How far do they allow themselves to be considered within the same universe of discourse?

First, a few basic distinctions.… Read more »